With growing inequality in Russia, it’s not surprising that Marx’s theories are resurfacing. In his installation speech last week, President Vladimir Putin emphasised the priority to improve the economic conditions of all the people. If the Russian economy begins to splutter, however, many believe that Marx will make a comeback.
If you had been walking past an attractive three-story Baroque townhouse at 664 Brukengasse, Trier in Prussia (now Germany) 200 years ago, you might have heard the cry of a new-born baby. Named Karl, the son of Heinrich and Henrietta Marx, this baby grew up to become the most famous and influential philosopher of the next two centuries, perhaps ever. At the time, his parents would have been astonished to learn that on the bicentenary of his birth, 5 May, a giant three-tonne statue of their son, the gift of communist China, would be unveiled to commemorate the occasion, just one of 600 events planned by the city. The author of the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, Karl Marx has always divided opinion. Some hail him as a visionary scholar who foretold the ills of the market economy, others revile him for inspiring totalitarian regimes around the world. Many consider that his theories, developed as the industrial revolution gathered pace in the 19th century, find resonance today as societies once again see social and political upheaval.
It might surprise you that in a country which adopted his theories for more than 70 years, and one in which there are 1,390 streets bearing his name, the Russian authorities chose not to mark the bicentenary occasion at all. “The official stance is that his revolutionary ideas brought misfortune to the Russian people”, said Lev Gudkov, director of the respected independent pollster company Levada Centre; “Russians have all but forgotten him”. According to Gudkov, in 1989, some 35% of Russians thought of Marx as one of the top 10 greatest people to have lived. By the end of 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, only 8% did. Since 2008 the number has flatlined at just 3%.
Some commentators are positively vitriolic against Marx. “The extraordinary thing about Marxism”, wrote the UK MEP Daniel Hannanin in the Daily Telegraph on the day of the bicentenary, “is not the destructiveness, though with 100 million deaths on its account it is by far the most lethal ideology ever devised. No, the truly extraordinary thing is, despite that monstrous record, it remains intellectually respectable.” The latter was reflected by the UK Financial Times, with its headline “Why Karl Marx is more relevant than ever”. Or the Economist: “On his bicentenary, Marx’s diagnosis of capitalism’s flaws is surprisingly relevant”. Or even the New York Times: “Happy birthday, Karl Marx, you were right!”
It’s this dichotomy between the theory of Marxism and the attempts to put it into practice which lies at the heart of the issue. Few would disagree with his analysis of the plight of workers in 19th century Britain. The sheer misery of the working and domestic conditions of the factory workers, paradoxically some of whom worked for Frederick Engels, who financed Marx throughout much of his life, were simply appalling. Marx saw the workers being exploited simply to make the factory owners rich. His solution was to put all the means of production into common ownership so that everyone would benefit from their labour.
Great theory, but look what happened when it was put into practice. Some 40% of humanity who lived under Marxist regimes for much of the 20th century endured famines, gulags and party dictatorships. When I lived in Moscow, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, I witnessed the endless queues for bread or anything to feed the family. The rotting fruit and vegetables in the Central Market contrasted with the cheek by jowl attractive fresh fruit on the embryo private stalls, recently permitted by Mikhail Gorbachev as an experiment in capitalism. Unfortunately for most Russians at the time, this was being sold for hard currency, which was well beyond the reach of the vast majority of Russians. The bizarre sight of completely empty state shops, still fully staffed by bored shop assistants polishing their nails, somehow epitomised the failure of Marxist communism. I walked down the centre of the huge state shop GUM on the edge of Red Square and noted the shoddy goods for sale and the decaying superstructure.
A year ago I returned to GUM to witness the extraordinary transformation inside. Every big-name international label was there in a dazzling display of wealth, surpassing even Harrods in London’s millionaire Knightsbridge. No more could I buy anything I wanted; in fact I winced at having to pay $10 for a coffee. Around me were a few ultra-wealthy Russian women and some gawping tourists. The average Muscovite could hardly afford to even look.
Suddenly I began to think about Marx and his views on the haves and the have not’s. According to a recent report by Credit Suisse, Russia is now the most unequal of the world’s major economies, with 89% of the wealth owned by the country’s richest 10%. Putin’s Russia is not alone, of course, in experiencing a growing gap between the super-wealthy and the ordinary citizen. According to a recent report in the New York Times, currently the richest 1% in Trump’s America now own more wealth than the bottom 90%. Recent tax cuts will of course make this divide even worse.
With this growing inequality it’s not surprising that Marx’s theories are resurfacing. Sales of his books have soared worldwide, indicating a resurgence since the worldwide economic crisis of 2008. In his installation speech last week, President Vladimir Putin emphasised the priority to improve the economic conditions of all the people. If the Russian economy begins to splutter, however, many believe that Marx will make a comeback and be relevant again. It’s far too early to confine Marxism to the dustbin of history.
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently Chairman of the Plymouth University of the Third Age.